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For twenty minutes of play, the Cats looked lost on defense and inefficient on offense. All while locked in a battle against Division III foe Transylvania and completely unprepared to battle Maryland Friday.
Then the second half happened.
The Cats locked down defensively and outscored the Pioneers 47-10 in a dominating performance to win 74-28 at Rupp Arena Monday night.
The Cats sour start had Transy with the ball with a chance to tie or take a lead twice in the late stages of the first half.
Defensively the Cats failed to aggressively pursue shooters, leading to 12 three-point attempts for the Pioneers.
“You’re going to have teams that try to beat us at the three-point line,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “Out of the 40 games we’ll play, I am guessing 15, 18 will try to beat us solely at the three-point line.”
Many UK offensive possessions were spent passively exchanging the ball on the perimeter without much movement away from the ball.
Sloppy offense led to poor shooting as the Cats went 9-of-21 from the field in the half.
“We had 27 points,” Calipari said. “We didn’t post the ball enough.”
The Cats were clearly more focused in the second half — beginning with a different lineup and a bounce in their step.
Calipari inserted freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein and graduate student guard Julius Mays instead of sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore guard Ryan Harrow, as the Cats took command right away with a 20-4 run to begin the half.
“I just wanted to try something to see,” Calipari said. “I was not very happy with how we were playing.”
Defensively, the Cats forced 15 second half Pioneer turnovers.
“We just put more effort in the second half to get a stop. Making them turn the ball over so that we could get transition points,” Cauley-Stein said. “Coach had a big part of it, but we had to realize ourselves that this is not acceptable at the higher collegiate level.”
The Cats also limited Transy to 8 3-point attempts in the half — all misses.
“We came out with a lot more energy,” Mays said. “We started getting more aggressive — scrambling, rebounding and running.”
The Cats clicked offensively as well, hitting 20-of-28 field goal attempts for 71.4 percent.
“Coach told me to be aggressive. It starts with the defensive side,” Harrow said. “If I got energy on the defensive side it will translate to the offensive side.”
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who led the Cats in scoring in both the Blue-White game and the exhibition against Northwood, was especially Jekyll and Hyde.
His was nearly invisible in the first half, going scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting with two turnovers.
Goodwin reverted to the flashes he displayed in the two earlier performances, ending the game with 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“The first half, Archie was awful,” Calipari said. “The second half he played batter, but that’s what freshmen do.”
With so little time to prepare for early season high-profile games, it is hard to determine what has led to the slow starts.
“We just always start off slow for some reason,” Harrow said. “I think because we are such a young team, a lot of the guys remember that in high school you could start off slow because you were so much better than everybody you were playing against. So we just have to get adjusted to playing the college game.”
Calipari led the team through a two and a half hour practice in preparation for Transy and they came out flat and uninspired.
“Well, if they played bad they’ll tell you that’s why they played bad,” Calipari said. “It was a two-and-a-half hour practice. Look, it’s just going to be a process.”
A process that can’t lead to 20 minutes of good basketball in a 40-minute-long game.
It is safe to say that one half of great basketball will not be sufficient to defeat UK’s next two opponents, the Maryland Terrapins and the Duke Blue Devils.
“We are who we are. I keep saying it” Calipari said. “We’re a November 5th team.”